The right play call and precise execution can oftentimes be the difference between a win and a loss in the NFL, and the Falcons’ 24-20 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles on “Sunday Night Football” was no exception.
Even the smallest of details – and capitalizing on them at the right time – can mean the difference between a win or loss. And it was a critical call by Atlanta that ultimately helped the Falcons end a three-game skid to the Eagles and improve to 1-1 on the year.
Facing a fourth-and-3 with 2:20 remaining in the game, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter called in the play, but he also alerted quarterback Matt Ryan to a specific check should the Eagles defense provide a certain look.
“Yeah, it was a great play call by Dirk,” Ryan said after the game. “We came out, we had a different concept call but knew if we got the look we were going to get with all out pressure, we were going to check to what we checked to.”
That check happened to be a tunnel screen that resulted in the game-winning 54-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to receiver Julio Jones.
It’s also an example of the microscopic details that take place in the chess match that is NFL play-calling, something fans aren’t often aware of. What’s really interesting about that specific play, however, is that it’s one the Falcons were trying to get to throughout their final fourth-quarter drive.
“When you’re in empty formations one of the things that they like to do is go to a zero pressure,” Koetter explained. “They ran several zero pressures in the game. If you notice in that last series we went empty multiple times; we were actually trying to get them to do it. We had all of those plays tagged with the check.”
What Koetter means by “zero pressure” is a Cover Zero scheme by the defense. In Cover Zero, a defense has no deep safety in zone coverage and instead has every coverage defender assigned in man coverage against a single receiver. Any player not in coverage is rushing the quarterback.
Koetter noted that it’s not uncommon to see a team run Cover Zero once or twice throughout a game, but he counted eight different times the Eagles ran that specific look, including Ryan’s second interception of the game.
So, after seeing Cover Zero several times on Sunday night, Ryan knew exactly what to look for when he broke the huddle on the Falcons’ last drive.
When he did break the huddle, this is what he saw:
The Falcons had five players split out wide with nobody in the backfield beside Ryan. The Eagles showed five defenders lined up directly across from Atlanta’s receivers and six players at the line of scrimmage ready to come after Ryan. That, and the vacated deep part of the defense, indicated to Ryan that Philadelphia was in Cover Zero and that Atlanta had gotten exactly the look it wanted.
Now, it was all about the execution. While Jones and left tackle Jake Matthews have received a lot of the credit for making this play happen – and rightfully so – Mohamed Sanu’s role in the success of it was crucial.
“When you really look at that play, the guy that set up that block was Mohamed,” Koetter said of Matthews’ pancake block on the corner. “Mohamed was on what we call a reverse-push crack [block]. Where, instead of pushing and cracking in, he pushed and cracked out on the corner. And the timing by Mohamed on that was beautiful.”
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky also showered Sanu with praise for his role in helping spring Jones free for the game-winning score.
Sanu’s play alone on that touchdown shows the microscopic nuances to each NFL play. By taking his route up three yards before breaking on the corner to block him, Sanu allows Matthews to reach his man and crush him into oblivion.
That cleared up a path for Jones, who kicked it into overdrive and reached 20 miles per hour while sprinting to the end zone.
In real time that touchdown play looked like a gutsy play call that worked because the Falcons’ stars beat the Eagles defenders on the perimeter. When taking a closer look at the game-winner, however, that one play tells you everything about the kind of detail and execution needed to beat good NFL teams.